In the depths of central India the red rocks hung heavy in the dry April heat. The guide Bimal led us along the marked trail and tangled thorns through the prehistoric caves, solicitous that we admired the ancient paintings, the oldest rock art in India, preserved by UNESCO in the remote archaeological world heritage site of Bhimbetka. Our footsteps on the hot packed earth echoed with the silence of far-distant ancestors.
Occupied in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic times through to the historic period, the shimmering walls of Bhimbetka rock shelters were alive with drawings of stylised animals, ritual dancers and horseback hunters pursuing herds that had roamed up to 10,000 years ago, offering a rare glimpse into the earliest traces of life in India. Amongst the bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelope, a peacock, a tiger and the left handprint of a small child, my attention was immediately caught by the tusked elephant with people perched on his back.
“I used to live with elephants in the Tarai jungles – have you been to Nepal?” I asked Bimal, to explain my enthusiasm. “Not yet,” came the elliptical reply.
Rather like Covid-19, the complex conundrum surrounding the rights and wrongs of keeping captive elephants can be led by solid science and good sense, or it gets blinded in a whirlwind of rumour and innuendo. Whatever we may think today, the red wall art of Bhimbetka reminds us that elephants are embedded deep within the South Asian cultural psyche, a rapport built over many millennia.
Nepal: a family’s destination, Lisa Choegyal